By the end of 1940 Jimmy Stewart had completed 28 films and won numerous awards and accolade from his peers. By the end of 1940 he’d also have a Best Actor Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story, his only competitive category Oscar.
The Philadelphia Story was directed by another Hollywood legend George Cukor who also directed A Star is Born, My Fair Lady, and Adam’s Rib.
The story is about the upcoming wedding of socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) to George Kittredge (Howard). As the final weekend arrives she’s frustrated to find her ex-husband has arrived along with a couple of “family friends”. The “friends” are working for Spy Magazine” where the ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) used to work. Dexter is eager to help the magazine he used to work for. Although Tracy isn’t fooled but she allows them to stay when Dexter hints at a damaging article about her father that could come out. Reporter Macaulay “Mike” Conner (Stewart) is left to cover the event despite his lack of enthusiasm and disdain for high society.
As the weekend goes on Tracy is forced to see the truth about herself as she interacts with her fiancée, Mike, and the rest of her family. As the wedding approaches Tracy is forced to deal with her newfound feelings. In the end her feelings become clear and she’s forced to act on them. The ending works perfectly in this light-hearted film about love and marriage.
This film was an instant success and continues to be seen as a timeless classic. At the time it was released it broke box office records including at the Radio City Music Hall which took in over $600,000 in its first six weeks. In addition to Stewart’s Oscar his co-star Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar as well. The film won a total of 6 Academy Awards beating out other great films like The Grapes of Wrath and Our Town.
This film’s impact has lasted well past its release. In 1995 the Library of Congress declared the film to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Jimmy Stewart wasn’t expecting to win his Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. In fact, he’d planned on skipping the awards and had already voted for his friend Henry Fonda in the Best Actor category. He was “motivated” to attend by a phone call and recieved the award. He later said that he felt the award was given to him as compensation for his failure to win the previous year for his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Despite his thoughts on the award Stewart gave an incredible performance as the quick-talking writer Mike Conner.
This film would be the last film of Stewart’s before he left for war. With World War II breaking out Stewart had enlisted and was commissioned as a second Lieutenant in January 1942. He was posted to Moffett Field and then Mather Field as an instructor pilot in single- and twin-engine aircraft. He would make limited public appearances to help recruiting for the Army Air Forces.
“Stewart gave his full attention to his duty in the military. In August 1943, Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group at Sioux City AAB, Iowa, first as operations officer of the 703d Bombardment Squadron and then as its commander, at the rank of captain. In December, the 445th Bombardment Group flew its B-24 Liberator bombers to RAF Tibenham, Norfolk, England and immediately began combat operations. While flying missions over Germany, Stewart was promoted to major. In March 1944, he was transferred as group operations officer to the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had been experiencing difficulties. As a means to inspire his new group, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on numerous missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. These missions went uncounted at Stewart’s orders. His “official” total is listed as 20 and is limited to those with the 445th. In 1944, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. In July 1944, after flying 20 combat missions, Stewart was made Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force, and though he was no longer required or expected to fly missions, he continued to do so. Before the war ended, he was promoted to colonel, one of the few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.”
During the war Jimmy’s father kept his Oscar in the front window of the family business. Stewart would remain in the military long after the war eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General. Following The Philadelphia Story his next film would be Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.